History of the Term, “White Trash”

A good read that turns fascinating
when it discusses the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell which dealt with eugenical involuntary sterilization.

The term white trash dates back not to the 1950s but to the 1820s. It arises not in Mississippi or Alabama, but in and around Baltimore, Maryland. And best guess is that it was invented not by whites, but by African Americans. As a term of abuse, white trash was used by blacks—both free and enslaved—to disparage local poor whites. Some of these poor whites would have been newly arrived Irish immigrants, others semiskilled workers drawn to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in the postrevolutionary building boom, and others still may have been white servants, waged or indentured, working in the homes and estates of area elites. The term registered contempt and disgust, as it does today, and suggests sharp hostilities between social groups who were essentially competing for the same resources—the same jobs, the same opportunities, and even the same marriage partners.

While white trash is likely to have originated in African American slang, it was middle-class and elite whites who found the term most compelling and useful and they who, ultimately, made it part of popular American speech.


  1. “White Trash” is nasty but it isn’t any worse than “nigger” or “wetback.” Wake me up when you’ve found a phrase that differentiates James Randi from Paris Hilton. You know, a nasty, evil, derogatory term of some sort.

    Intellectual Trash. Something like that.

  2. It’s no worse but I’d really prefer to not hear “white trash”, “nigger” or “wetback”. Somehow it’s culturally acceptable to say “white trash” or “redneck”, though.

  3. I think “white trash” is considered acceptable to say because while you can be “born” white trash, it’s something you have the power to change.

    Most of those taboo words that will get your kid detention if they’re caught saying it are words that refer to a person’s race or religeon. You have to be white to be white trash, but you can make choices in your life to avoid becoming or staying someone who fits that definition.

Comments are closed.